Why the Purdue Boilermakers are primed for a Final Four run

Since taking the Purdue job prior to the 2005-06 season, Matt Painter has had plenty of success — making the tournament in 12/16 seasons, winning at least one game in 9/12 appearances, and reaching five Sweet 16’s.

Painter’s one Elite 8 came in 2018-19 as a 3-seed, and in case you don’t recall, the Boilermakers were painfully close to reaching their first Final Four since 1980.

Both Baylor’s Scott Drew and UCLA’s Mick Cronin made their first Final Fours this past season. When will Painter join them?

Since 2005-06, only one active coach without a Final Four has had a greater probability of reaching one (per Barttorvik metrics). If one includes Sean Miller, who Arizona fired this offseason, the number becomes two.

1) Sean Miller (Xavier/Arizona): 79% chance of reaching Final Four since 2005-06

2) Jamie Dixon (Pittsburgh/TCU): 71%

3) Matt Painter (Purdue): 64%

4) Tom Crean (Marquette/Indiana/Georgia): 51%

5) Mike Brey (Notre Dame): 40%

The takeaway from the above shouldn’t be that Painter deserves criticism. Instead, I’d argue he’s simply due for a Final Four. Why not next year?

This past tournament, 4-seed Purdue fell victim to a 1st-round upset at the hands of North Texas. In many ways, however, the Boilermakers overachieved last season, especially given the team was only 327th in experience per KenPom (weighted for minutes played).

Last Season’s Freshmen

Jaden Ivey: 24.2 mpg

Brandon Newman: 23.6 mpg

Mason Gillis: 22.2 mpg

Zach Edey: 14.7 mpg

Ethan Morton: 8.7 mpg

When blue bloods like Duke and Kentucky play freshmen heavy minutes, it’s usually because they have several big-time recruits that won’t be on the roster the following season. Purdue is different, however. Of the five freshmen in the rotation, none were top 75 recruits, and EACH is expected to be back for their sophomore years.

How rare is this? Since 2005-06, there have been 37 teams that were 1) sub-300 in experience & 2) were a top-five seed in the NCAA Tournament. The following season, only 13/37 were top 100 in continuity — a metric measuring the stability of a team’s rotation from one season to the next. In other words, only 0.8 squads per season have met these three criteria.

For example, 2019-20 Kentucky ranked 335th in experience, but after four players turned pro, the Wildcats ranked 342nd in continuity this past season. 2019-20 Villanova on the other hand, were 328th in experience, but after only losing Saddiq Bey to the next level, ranked 8th in continuity in 2020-21.

Here are the 13 teams.

What jumps out? Despite an impressive Sweet 16 run, Colin Gillespie’s season-ending injury lowered the ceiling on last year’s Villanova team. 2018-19 Auburn took a trip to the Final Four. Not every team had tournament success, however (e.g. 2009-10 Kansas — fell to Northern Iowa in Round of 32).

Based on current roster projections, Purdue will almost certainly be team No. 14 — ranking in the top 100 (if not the top ten) in continuity. Only 11 teams are projected to return a greater percentage of last season’s minutes than the Boilermakers (see notables below). Oklahoma State (4-seed, 324th in experience last season) will lose Cade Cunningham but could potentially make it “15”.

1) Saint Mary’s: 100.0% of last season’s minutes projected to return

2) Northern Iowa: 99.0%

5) Ohio: 96.0%

7) Butler: 94.1%

11) Purdue: 91.3%

Will this formula work for Purdue next season? Boilermakers fans have several reasons to be optimistic, but I’ll settle for two: one pertaining to each end of the floor.

Offense: Trevion Williams

Since 2009-10, only three players have averaged at least 15 points and 9 rebounds in less than 26 minutes per game (min. 20 games played).

DeMarcus Cousins (09-10 Kentucky): 15.1/9.8 in 23.5 minutes

Michael Buchanan (16-17 South Carolina Upstate): 16.1/9.5 in 23.3 minutes

Trevion Williams (20-21 Purdue): 15.5/9.1 in 25.1 minutes

The 6-10 forward is a crafty passer as well. Matt Painter often elected to run offensive sets through Williams.

The big-man is also a clever improvisational playmaker.

The post-up might not be beloved by the analytics community, but Williams is good enough with his back to the basket to overcome most of these “math” obstacles.

Defense: Embrace the Three

The 3-point line was extended prior to the 2019-20 season, producing the worst long-range shooting year since the shot was introduced in 1986. This past season was slightly better, but still finished as the 2nd-worst mark.

Worst NCAAB 3-point shooting seasons:

2019-20: 33.3%

2020-21: 33.8%

1996-97: 33.9%

The decline in shooting efficiency hasn’t caused teams to attempt significantly fewer threes, however. While the sport’s 3-point attempt rate declined from 2018-19’s all-time high of 38.7%, it was still 37.5% in 2019-20 (tied for 2nd-highest) and 37.4% (4th-highest) this past season.

Highest NCAAB 3-Point Attempt Rate Seasons:

2018-19: 38.7%

2017-18 & 2019-20: 37.5%

2020-21: 37.4%

The key takeaway: Since the 3-point line was moved back, teams have been making threes at historically low rates while continuing to take them at historically high rates.

What’s all this have to do with Purdue? The last several seasons, the coaching staff has clearly emphasized protecting the paint and lived with opponents taking a lot of threes. In 2020-21, only five teams had a lower percentage of its opponents’ shot selection come “at the rim”.

1) San Diego State (22.8% of opponent shots at the rim)

2) Bradley (24.4%)

3) BYU (24.6%)

4) Missouri St. (24.8%)

5) Nebraska (25.3%)

6) Purdue (26.0%)

After four consecutive years (2015-18) ranking in the top 100 at limiting 3-point attempts, few teams have allowed more attempts than the Boilermakers the last three seasons (only 13 in 2020-21).

2014-15: 30.5% defensive 3-point attempt rate (30th-lowest rate)

2015-16: 33.1% (96th)

2016-17: 34.0% (88th)

2017-18: 34.4% (76th)

2018-19: 43.2% (307th)

2019-20: 42.0% (305th)

2020-21: 45.3% (335th)

Given the key takeaway noted above, one could argue there’s never been a better time to allow more 3-point attempts, and Purdue is primed to take advantage. Interestingly, Purdue’s shift in defensive philosophy came one season before the arc was moved back. Maybe Matt Painter can add clairvoyance to his coaching resume.


Purdue might not be the favorites to cut down the nets in 2022, but notably, DraftKings gives them the 4th-best odds to do so at +1300 — behind only Michigan (+1200), Michigan (+900) and Gonzaga (+700). Don’t be surprised if the Boilermakers take a trip to The Big Easy next April.

(Credit to KenPom, sports-reference, hoop-math and Barttorvik for statistics and March Madness for GIF)

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